The mussels from Brussels: 48 hours in Belgium’s classy capital

City Square in Brussels. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 November 2018
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The mussels from Brussels: 48 hours in Belgium’s classy capital

  • A quick guide to the Belgian capital, Brussels
  • Not the first destination that comes to mind for a European mini-break, but Brussels turned out to be quite the surprise

LONDON: It’s not the first destination that comes to mind for a European mini-break, but Brussels turned out to be quite the surprise.
With a couple of days to spare in the UK, my travel partner and I decided to find the quickest — and most affordable — trip, and our search took us to the Belgian capital.
Tickets and hotel booked, we jetted off with little expectations except wanting to find the perfect waffle.
Landing in Brussels at noon, we headed straight to our hotel to drop off our bags, and were delighted it was a 12-minute drive from the airport. Our temporary home of choice was the ultra-affordable ($96 per night) Aloft Brussels Schuman in Place Jean Rey, a fuss-free four-star establishment that impressed with its laidback atmosphere and street-art-inspired rooms.

A main street in Brussels. (Shutterstock)

We began our sightseeing at the European Parliament Hemicycle — the main office of the members of the European Parliament. It certainly offered a great insight into the world’s largest transnational parliament’s role and powers. Entry is free, but you’ll need ID.
After that, we headed to one of the city’s most famous landmarks: Grand Place. Breathtakingly beautiful is an understatement; this UNESCO World Heritage Site — home to the city’s Town Hall and main museum — is so impressive it’s hard to take in its true scale.
A few blocks away is the Manneken Pis, a bronze statue that’s too cheeky to feature a picture of, but is so well-known we had to include it in our tour. The sculpture is said to be the best-known symbol of the people of Brussels, representing their “sense of humor and independence of mind.”
You could spend hours exploring this area. We stumbled upon Comic Strip Route, a trail featuring 50-odd colorful murals that represent the city’s comics heritage (Brussels is the birthplace of The Smurfs and Tintin, among others).

It was time to find a snack, and during our walk we passed by a tearoom that had a long queue outside. Surely a good sign? Turns out we were at Maison Dandoy, a Belgian institution dating back to 1829, known for its speculoos and waffles.
It was worth the wait. We had the best waffle we’ve ever eaten: freshly cooked, crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. The addition of speculoos-flavoured ice-cream was delightful.
Later we made a final stop at Frit Flagey for a cone of Belgian frites — another oh-so-tasty local delicacy.

On our second day, we headed to the Atomium, an iconic building built in 1958 and renovated at a cost of €26 million in 2006. It’s certainly peculiar; but it’s the only place that offers a 360-degree view of Brussels. Strike it lucky with clear skies, and you’ll get a great experience.
Next to it is the mildly amusing Mini-Europe, a park that displays, you guessed it, mini replicas of monuments in the European Union, at a scale of 1:25. Cool spots were Big Ben — let’s face it, it will probably be demolished post-Brexit next year — and a real piece of the Berlin Wall.
A short walk away is the Brussels Expo. We came across a “Star Wars: Identities” exhibition that appealed to our inner nerd. Upcoming events include “Walking with Dinosaurs” and the Brussels Motor Show.
With the end of our trip fast approaching, there was just time for an early dinner. We saved the best dining experience to last. Mussels are a must-have, and we couldn’t have found a better place than Le Zinneke, a charming bistro serving up over 69 mussel dishes. We opted for the signature Fisherman’s Style — a delightful pot served in a vegetable and herb mix, with a side of Belgian fries. Each pot contains over a kilogram of mussels and, although the friendly staff may advise you take one each, we’d suggest sharing.
Brussels and its friendly people were a pleasant surprise, and we’d definitely return. And with its most famous foods being waffles, chocolate, fries and mussels, it’s the perfect stop for a halal break.

 


Sensational Sikkim: Exploring the unspoiled wilderness from Chumbi Mountain Resort

The Chumbi Mountain Resort. (Supplied)
Updated 15 January 2019
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Sensational Sikkim: Exploring the unspoiled wilderness from Chumbi Mountain Resort

  • Chumbi Mountain Retreat is located in India, in the northeastern state of Sikkim
  • The retreat is both a luxury resort and a repository of traditional culture and craft

DUBAI: At the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., I was awoken by a phone call from reception. “Madam, we have a really clear view of Kanchenjunga mountain this morning, so Mr. Chopel has asked us to wake you, so you can see it,” said a disembodied voice, apologetically but with a sense of urgency.

I smiled and flung open the curtains, and there it was. The majestic Himalayan mountain — the world’s third-highest — looked like it was right outside my bedroom window, within touching distance. Clustered with its neighboring snow-clad peaks, it sparkled a bright white, against the impossibly blue skies.

General view of Kanchenjunga mountain.(Shutterstock)

That’s the kind of thing that you don’t mind dragging yourself out of bed — and barefoot onto the cold stone terrace — for; to capture that perfect photo before the fleeting view disappears behind a veil of clouds.

And it’s the kind of personal touch that makes the Chumbi Mountain Retreat special. Owner Ugyen Chopel (a filmmaker and prominent local personality) has made it is his mission to showcase this little-known corner of paradise to the world.

The retreat is situated in India, near the Himalayas in the northeastern state of Sikkim — the country’s second smallest and one of its youngest, having remained a Buddhist monarchy until as recently as 1975. Sikkim has a rich and unique heritage, as well as the more recent distinction of being India’s first fully organic (in terms of agriculture) state.

Nestled in the hills of Pelling in western Sikkim, Chumbi Mountain Retreat is both a luxury resort and a repository of traditional culture and crafts. The traditional monastic design and motifs recreated using natural materials such as local stone and wood, in an artisanal approach, and the many hand-picked historic artifacts used in the décor make staying in this serene hideaway an immersive experience.

Nowhere is this truer than at Dyenkhang, an intimate specialty restaurant offering authentic local cuisine in the traditions of the royal palace. It’s the only place in Sikkim offering this kind of meal, I was told.

The food is served in a traditionally reverential manner — the servers are meant to never show their back to the diner — on gleaming copper tableware, the fit-for-a-king feast includes phing zekar (glass noodles with marinated local greens); chu zhema (cottage cheese dumplings); gundtruk sadako (fermented greens tossed with onion and chilli); and phyasha saltum (chicken cooked in traditional herbs).

The fresh, organic produce ensures each dish bursts with flavor. But dinner here is as educational as it is delicious, providing an insight into the many influences that went into shaping Sikkimese culture and cuisine.

Another great way to experience that local culture is with a traditional ‘Dottho’ hot-stone bath in the resort’s zen-like Mhenlha Spa. An Al-fresco soak in a wooden tub with heated mineral stones added to the water together with local herbs makes for a healing, hugely relaxing experience — aided by a fermented rice drink which you are meant to sip throughout.

With its vantage point boasting panoramic views across the valley, and with numerous nooks and communal spaces to relax in, guests may be tempted to simply stay in the resort for the duration of their trip. But that would be a shame, as there is a great deal more to see in this unspoiled region.

From the scenic Khecheopalri Lake (which, local folklore has it, has the power to grant wishes) and the impressive perennial Kanchenjunga waterfall, to the sacred Pemayangtse monastery — a mountaintop Buddhist temple where fluttering prayer flags and meditative chanting create a rarified atmosphere of tranquility — excursion options abound. For the more adventurous, trekking and hiking trails are also available nearby, as are farm tours.

Kanchenjunga waterfall. (Shutterstock)

Truth be told, this isn’t the easiest place to get to or around — the roads aren’t great and Sikkim’s overall infrastructure is still developing. But those making the effort to visit this remote land will be rewarded with stunning alpine landscapes, great hospitality from unaffected, friendly people, and an inescapable sense of spiritual wellbeing. And, who knows, maybe even an elusive sighting of some of the world’s greatest mountain peaks.